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Discovering Craft Villages in Vietnam

Sylvie Fanchette
Nicholas Stedman


Michael Digregorio

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1A decade ago, I sat by the side of a road in Bắc Ninh with the owner of a small foundry discussing the recent history of his village’s craft. As he was recounting this history he paused, then suddenly turned to me and said, “I am not an Annamite!” His Bắc Ninh accent baffled me for a second, so I asked what “A-La Mit” meant. “Annamite,” he said, “is illiterate, stupid.”

2This phrase stuck with me more than any comment I heard during the year I spent in Bắc Ninh. The inhabitants of my friend’s village, Đa Hội, like those of many other craft villages. I had visited, were not passively waiting for development to come; they had grasped the opportunities, and had begun innovating in the market for their products long before official policies confirmed their rights. Before Foreign Direct Investment entered the scene, these villages were providing Vietnamese with the processed foods, alcohol, cloth, building materials, bicycle parts, wickerwork, cigarettes, brooms, ceramics, and many other goods for everyday use, sometimes under contract to larger state companies. Despite this, both my friend’s village and many other craft villages continued to struggle against an image of their work as traditional, technically backward, wasteful of labor, and low in income. In a word, “Annamite” in his colloquial sense.

3For certain, many traditional craft villages of the Red River Delta were all of these, and many of those village crafts have now faded into the past. But for every craft village that disappeared over the last decade, another has shifted to production for new consumer markets, and still others that were formerly agricultural villages, have become craft villages in their own right-producing a wide range of goods, including plastic pellets and briefcases, that would not be considered traditional by any means.

4As the chapters of this volume will illustrate, craft villages have filled a space between past and future to become both an emblem of traditional craftsmanship, and a dynamic force for economic development. They can be both because, at their core, they comprise an ensemble of skills, knowledge and relations that grow out of the merger of village and occupation, and provide, at least, a source of income to supplement farming, and at best, a source of wealth to generate higher living standards and investment.

5Despite the role these villages play, development theory and practice have largely overlooked them. While the reasons why are complex, two points stand out. Vietnam entered its current phase of development enthralled with visions of large industrial plants producing goods on a mass scale, employing thousand of workers, freed from the drudgeries of agriculture. And not unlike others, they also entered this period with a bias toward the analysis of individual firms. Because the individual enterprises in craft villages are generally family owned and small, these two assumptions blinded many to the agglomeration of enterprises within a village or group of villages. This agglomeration creates economies of scale that rival larger factories and allow villages to produce goods competitively. This is not China, however, with its large commune-level enterprises. It is Italy, where the agglomeration of small firms in village-and town-based industrial districts served as the backbone of economic development for half a century. So, take this guide in hand, follow its itineraries, talk to artisans and traders, buy something to take home, create a business partnership, and imagine that you are witnessing the long period of the industrial revolution, compressed. You won’t be disappointed.


Program Officer for Media, Arts, Culture & Education, Ford Foundation, Hà Nội.

© IRD Éditions, 2016

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